Fresh Goods and The UK


This article provides data on the volume of imports of perishable goods into the UK from the EU. The issue is a hot topic at the moment in terms of imports into and exports out of the UK and the impact new customs clearance systems might have on how quickly such goods might be cleared. There is also an important side issue: where are they cleared?

Absent from any of the discussions so far is volumes i.e. how many truck loads of produce are we talking about? The trade database Eurostat provides comprehensive data on UK imports and exports which originate in the first instance from HMRC and from this, very conservative estimates on the numbers of truck movements can be arrived at.

The Scale of the Problem

John Keefe, Eurotunnel’s director of public affairs, has stated that “Eurotunnel transports 1.6 million trucks, carrying £120bn worth of goods across the Channel each year,” (The Guardian 27th May 2018)

Working on a 24/7/365 operation the 1.6 million trucks is the equivalent of 4383 per day. Putting it another way, from the Calais end 90 trucks per hour, ditto the Kent/Ashford end. Other UK ports operate RO-RO (roll-on/roll-off) which often just involve trailers only; Dover, Harwich, Newhaven and Southampton being the most notable.

Trade Data

In broad terms one can classify goods coming into (and going out of) the UK in two ways: perishable and non-perishable. The former is mostly food. Perishables include, cut flowers, strawberries, other fresh fruit, lettuces and so forth. Trucks carrying perishables will usually have some form of independently driven refrigeration system. This is a consideration if the truck has to remain stationary for some time.

The EC operates a publicly accessible database called Eurostat. The key part of Eurostat is the trade statistics which are based on a document called the Combined Nomenclature (CN) which classifies products using a CN number and a brief description. The database can be searched using CN codes/summary description. Exports and imports from (for example) the UK to the EU can be extracted in terms of their value (Euros) and volume (usually in 100s of kg). The data is available both yearly and monthly. The latter is useful when examining seasonal flows of goods.

UK Imports

What follows considers some popular perishable products imported into the UK. The 40 tonne truck equivalent has been selected to give a feel for the numbers of truck movements. In the case of products such as cut flowers these are likely to be moved in trucks that may have the volume of a 40 tonner but are carrying much less weight. Thus the numbers could be considered a “best case” situation – the reality is likely to be different – probably not by a 50% margin but possibly by an additional 20% in terms of the numbers of trucks needed to move produce. All data blow is for 2017. To arrive at the “40 tonne equiv” divide the weight column by 40.

UK Imports from EU Value Euro Millions Weight (Tonnes thousands) 40 Tonne Truck Equiv
Cauliflowers & Broccoli 136 118 2953
Sweet peppers 284 173 4343
Table grapes 176 82 2060
Watermelons 33 76 1921
Cucumbers 159 147 3682
Tomatoes 498 322 8066
Lettuce 54 81 2085
Cut Flowers 522 89 2226
Potatoes 55 88 2213

Source: Eurostat


In March 2017 more than 700 40 tonne trucks came into the UK with cucumbers, with lettuce 367 trucks (April 2017), tomatoes, 769 trucks (June 2017) and table grapes 429 trucks (Sept 2017). Sweet peppers are another product that not only needs 100s of trucks (411 trucks, March 2017) but which is more or less steady throughout the year.

In some cases seasonal effects come into play. Cauliflower and broccoli, 460 trucks (March 2017), falling to 10 in October 2017 and rising to 484 by December the same year. Strawberries show a similar pattern (277 trucks April 2017 – 30 in August).

PWR looked at 16 product categories, these produced in the range 2500 – 3300 truck equivalent movements into the UK per month – every month. Note that this is a best case scenario. If the situation is 20% worse (see the comments on cut flowers) this looks more like 3000 – 4000. Furthermore, the analysis covered a relatively small number of well known and popular products. How many inward truck movements cover cherries, apricots, kiwi fruits, lemons, limes, nectarines, plums. The list is very long. 1000 additional trucks per month?

By estimating 4000 40T movements per month and working on the basis of 24/7/365 this gives circa 135 trucks that need to be processed per day (135 going in and 135 going out). Many of the trucks going out from the UK are likely to be empty given that the UK is a net importer of agricultural produce by a long way, and UK manufacturing is not quite what it used to be (irony alert).

Much has been written with regards to exports and imports of other “just-in-time” (JIT) products for cars and such like. Would fresh goods be given priority in terms of processing (at the EU end – why would they do that?). What about empty trucks at the UK end? Would these be processed like a full truck – probably not – but they would still need to be processed.

A Warning From History?

Before single market rules came into play in the 1990s, French customs used to play a game with the Spanish. Each year Spanish fresh produce such as strawberries would flow with no problem across the Spanish/French border up to the point when the French strawberry crop (and other crops) kicked in. At that point admin became more “rigorous” and queues of trucks at locations such as La Junquera became epic in length.

UK Exports of Perishables

In terms of agriculture, UK exports to the EU can best be described as noise. Examples include potatoes, where the UK imports (2017) were 100k tonnes, and UK exports, 16k tonnes; tomatoes, UK imports 322k tonnes, UK exports 1k tonnes. Cut flowers look quite good by comparison (UK imports 30k tonnes, UK exports 17k tonnes – 2017). Doubtless there are some exceptions – key point – there certainly are exceptions. I know one farmer that makes a very good business exporting beef to Italy from cattle that have been “finished” on grass in the UK. One wonders how long that trade will last on leaving the EU. Will he and others that have found interesting niche markets become collateral damage on the alter of Tory party (dis)unity?

For the avoidance of doubt on the matter of collateral damage to UK citizens, readers might be interested in an account of a meeting between May and one of her constituents who was a Tory voter.

If this is the attitude of May towards her own Tory constituents (the very people that vote for her as an MP) her attitudes towards non-constituents and non-Tory voters may be even less sympathetic (is that possible?).

It would of course be desirable if the UK was able to produce more food itself. But this needs people to collect and pick produce. Prior to engineering Brexit, the Tories with May as Home Secretary, made sure that there would be a lack of people to pick UK grown agricultural products. This recent article in the Guardian covers the problem, here.

In summary, May decided in 2013 to end the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme which had been running since just after WW2 and was seen as reasonably effective. The Tories then put on flip-flops: in early 2017 it told a Defra committee that foreign labour shortage reports were anecdotal. But by February 2018 Gove told an NFU conference a scheme would be announced “shortly”. A pretty pathetic response, but typical from a government filled with know-nothings and never-were’s.


There are hundreds of truck movements per day, every day into the UK that carry perishable goods from the EU. These will compete for timely processing with other goods like JIT products destined for UK manufacturing sites, which, whilst not perishable, also need timely delivery.

Tories have claimed that the current “fuss” is reminiscent of the 1st January 2000 ‘milennium bug’ when it was claimed that many computer systems would fail due to the date change (1999 to 2000). Nothing happened. Nevertheless, if the worst happens, they are proposing (as a stop-gap solution?) to turn the M20 in Kent into a truck park. Doubtless the good people of Kent are looking forward to this event – after all that is what motorways are for – to be used as truck parks.

Continuing to shoot themselves in the foot, the Tories and May have ensured that the UK is poorly prepared to grow and pick its own food having cancelled a scheme for foreign workers that was seen to work quite well.

Maybe everything will be OK after all, since it will be UK customs officials (i.e. 3rd country customs officials) based in Calais (and other locations) clearing UK-bound goods. Really? The EU will allow non-EU customs officials to clear goods on their territory?

Finishing where we started: at Eurotunnel – if the French don’t play ball, that means that 90 trucks/hour need to be cleared at the UK end. This begs a practical question: where is the space?. Next time you are transiting Eurotunnel at Ashford, you will notice that the site is constrained by hills on one side and railways, motorways and housing estates on the other. There is no space for customs clearance at the UK end.

We are where we are due to decisions made by clueless Tory politicians who placed personal and party interest before national interest. They continue to do this. The end point could be shortages in the shops of some of the goods mentioned in article.

In this event, the ones to blame are the Tories and not the EU.


  1. Sean Danaher -

    thanks for the detailed figures. Very useful. It’s strange that Ireland and the Netherlands are putting major infrastructure projects in place for a bad Brexit while the UK is doing nothing. Makes the “No deal is better than a bad deal” rhetoric of the Brexit ultras look less credible. Sadly Ivan sees the dynamics in the UK could well be leading towards a hard Brexit in

  2. Ivan Horrocks -

    Mike, a really interesting blog (though I struggled with your use of the US English ‘truck’ rather than the UK English equivalent, ‘lorry’). It works particularly well with information that Private Eye regularly contains on the various duties/tariffs that the EU places on non EU farm goods and that will hit UK farmers next year (and as Sean notes, my assumption is no deal for reasons I explain elsewhere). I can’t now recall all of the examples PE has provided, but I do know that exports of UK lamb – where we apparently have a thriving export business – will be very hard hit as the tariff is high for non EU countries. Similarly for beef. Of course, farmers in France, Germany and so on must be rubbing their hands in glee. But so be it, we’re taking back control. And as I understand most farmers voted for Brexit they will simply reap what they have sown (excuse the pun).

    1. Mike Parr -

      Thanks for the comment Ivan, apologies for trucks – I have lived outside the UK for well over 30 years & thus ones useage of English tends to change. Indeed, I can see problems looming for UK lamb – “nowt so blind as those that won’t see” & applies to UK farmers. Ironic that the single market was the invention of Thatcher & her UK commissioner Cockfield & now, suddenly it is a big problem.

  3. Peter May -

    If customs procedures are not sorted out, with roughly 25% of our food coming from the EU and just in time ordering, any customs delays will lead to shortages – there is no slack – just look what happened in the cold weather. Potentially we’ll go hungry. I wouldn’t normally suggest this seriously, but I think this government is so utterly and irreponsibly incompetent, I’m making friends in the local farmers market.

  4. Neil -

    The comparison with the Millennium Bug is risible. Nothing (or very little) happened back then because years of work was put into making sure that was going to be the case. I haven’t seen any evidence the same effort has gone into working around this issue.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      agreed. Brendan Heading wrote quite a nice article on Slugger:

      During the course of said institution’s Year 2000 mitigation programme, scores of programs and systems were examined in an on-site test facility set up and isolated for that purpose, where the clock would be rolled forward to the changeover point and the correct behaviour of each system confirmed. Bugs were found, fixed and retested until there was confidence that every system worked correctly. Based on what I saw, had this work not been done, and had these kinds of bugs been replicated across other large business and government bodies, the entire financial system along with major government services, especially those to do with taxation and welfare distribution, could quite easily have ground to a halt.

      Since that time, ignorant people have suggested that there was really no serious Year 2000 bug and that the whole thing was an elaborate hoax. This is a problem not necessarily with the understanding of technology, but with human psychology. It’s simply very difficult to persuade people about something that works out of sight, ensuring that everything runs as it is supposed to, when they can’t see it or directly experience what life would be like without it. Of course, exaggeration of the Year 2000 bug did occur, with some people predicting that planes would fall out of skies, and that kind of exaggeration never helps. But when people hear about issues that are more obviously exaggeration, they are inclined to believe that the issues they don’t directly understand are also exaggeration.

      1. Ivan Horrocks -

        Sean. Absolutely. I was working at the University of Leicester as a lecturer in security management in which capicity I taught and researched cyber security amongst other things and so I was well up on what was and wasn’t going on the Year 2000 compliance issue.

        Incidentally, on your last point, one of the reporters of Lawrence O’Donnell’s programme reporting from near one of the detention camps for kids in the US made much the same point. It related to the story of a rancher who had twice shown up with his gun and scared people on a public road demonstarting against Trumps seperation policy away. When the reporter asked why he was doing such a thing the rancher replied that what the media reported going on was all fake news. As the reporter remarked to O’Donnell, it meant that there he was reporting factually on a real story (there was a detention camp and there were children in it) but being driven away and stopped from reporting by someone who actually believed a lie/fake news. Nobody should have any doubt that that really is the harbinger of fascism in waiting.

Comments are closed.